Michael Duncan, noted chemist in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, named regents professor

Michael Duncan, noted chemist in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, named Regents Professor

Athens, Ga. – Michael Duncan, Franklin Professor of Chemistry at the University of Georgia, has been named a Regents Professor. His appointment was approved at the regular meeting of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents this week.

Regents Professorships are granted by the regents to outstanding faculty members for an initial period of three years and are renewable for a second three-year period based on recommendations. Awardees receive a $10,000 permanent salary increase, in addition to the merit raise, in the year of initial appointment. They also receive a yearly fund of $5,000 in support of their scholarship.

“Dr. Duncan’s contributions to instruction and research are superb and serve as an example for others,” said Arnett C. Mace, Jr., UGA senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. “This recognition is a tribute to his achievements.”

Since he came to UGA in 1983, Duncan has been on the cutting edge worldwide in the study of metal clusters. For at least a decade, his work on metal carbides has placed him among the most sought-after chemists of his generation for presentations and speeches and has drawn interest and funding from a range of federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the U.S. Air Force.

“We are so pleased that such an outstanding faculty member as Michael Duncan has been named a Regents Professor,” said Garnett S. Stokes, dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “He is a world-class researcher and a much-sought-after teacher, and we believe he is a superb choice for this honor.”

Duncan expressed gratitude for the honor.

“I am, of course, extremely pleased to be honored in this way,” said Duncan. “I have been lucky to have excellent students and colleagues over the years who have made our research program possible, and this kind of award really recognizes all their contributions.”

Duncan earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Furman University and a doctoral degree in physical chemistry from Rice University. He has been a highly sought-after teacher and mentor in the chemistry department and has acquired a long list of honors, including being named a Fellow in the American Physical Society in 2001.

Not many scientists have a genuine “eureka” moment when they see a new field of study open before their eyes, but Duncan did, as a graduate student, working with legendary chemist Richard Smalley at Rice. Though lasers had been around for a while by then, their use, which would become pervasive in society over the period of the last two decades, was still largely unknown in the study of nanoparticles. Duncan and fellow graduate students were working on a molecular beam experiment when they accidentally misaligned the laser and vaporized part of the apparatus.

“We didn’t even know what we’d done at first,” Duncan recalled with a laugh, “but then we looked at the mass spec and immediately knew something was weird.”

Mass spectrometers are instruments that separate charged particles so they can be studied when graphs are made of the distributed spectra of the resulting “masses.” The signal Duncan and his fellow student saw on the mass spec was clearly one for metallic compounds, so they knew they’d goofed and actually vaporized part of their equipment. The accident, happily, led to a new way to produce small, regular particles called metal clusters, most of which exist only for milliseconds and are mind-bogglingly hard to study.

What began as a lab accident led to an entirely new idea: shooting laser beams at metals and then studying the gaseous metal clusters that were blasted off. The Smalley group at Rice later used the same equipment and repeated the experiments on carbon and discovered a form of the element called carbon-60. Shaped in panels like the geodesic dome invented by architect Buckminster Fuller, the C60 forms were named “buckeyballs,” and the team that discovered them was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996.

Overall, Duncan’s research program synthesizes and characterizes a variety of novel atomic and molecular “aggregates” containing metals. These aggregates, which are called clusters or nanoparticles, may consist of only a few atoms of pure metal, mixtures of metals or metal compounds such as carbides or oxides.

The overall goal of the research is to understand how the atoms in these nanoclusters are arranged and what makes their structures stable, something that remains unclear, in many cases, to science, but which has applications in nanotechnology, energy research and even environmental science.

In 2000, Duncan was part of a startling discovery that is changing how science looks at the last evolutionary stages of low-mass stars.

When low-mass stars called red supergiants die, they fade away on a “wimpy” wind-or so scientists thought. Duncan’s research, co-authored with several scientists from the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands and published in the prestigious journal Science, found evidence for titanium carbide nanoclusters in the infrared emissions from these stars, and suggested that the exact opposite may be true. These stars, in fact, may die with a bang and not with a whimper. In fact, the study may lead researchers to a new understanding of red supergiants, which are studied to resolve issues in nucleosynthesis, stellar structure, and the evolution of stars.

“This discovery was really a gigantic surprise,” says Mike. “One of the beauties of doing fundamental science is that you never quite know where it may lead.”